Brian Howe

A Review
Summer 2005 Book Review Section

 

David Meiklejohn, Plots (Effing Press), 2004), $5
www.effingpress.com

          The first impulse one feels toward David Meiklejohn’s chapbook Plots is taxonomical – should it
be weighed against the history of the prose poem or short story? This is like finding a unicorn and ear-
tagging it with a serial number before even stroking its silver mane. But the taxonomical urge is a
defensive one, difficult to avoid: Our environs are as thick with cultural product as a swamp is with
swarming insects, buzzing over us constantly enough (sting sting sting) to keep us in the state of low-
grade panic we call stimulation. Genres and labels become more like barricades than simple partitions,
holding it all at bay within separate (if frustratingly permeable) compartments.
          Many of us in this desperately taxonomical age need to know what something is before we move
on to other responses of suspect utility – “Do I like it?” “Is it good?” “Is it better than me?” &c. This
can keep us from getting to more important questions – “Does it sing?” “Is it true?” “Why does this
frighten me?” &c. Such are the perils of writing in the crease. Offered a piece of trout-flavored candy,
I’ll want to know whether it’s a Sweet Tart or a Smartie, even though it’ll taste just as piscine either
way.
          The metaphor is getting away from me, and whether it’s poetry or fiction, there’s nothing
unpleasant tasting in Plots. But there is some literal, and plenty of figurative, fishiness, and permeable
compartments (no independent action occurs without consequences here) abound. “I Shouldn’t Tell
You This” is a Proustian, scent-triggered reverie: “A few minutes ago I went to the bathroom and the
smell reminded me of gymnastics camp.” By beginning with “A few minutes ago,” Meiklejohn cannily
roots his dreamlike reminisces, brimming with freighted symbols, in the Now – a vantage from which
time passed is dreamtime, especially the raw and portentous state of childhood.
          The narrator rows out on the camp’s lake in search of his lost sneakers and sees “a small school
of babies swimming to the surface for air, their eyes black and their mouths opening and closing in
unison.” Imperiled, frightened children with a darkly comedic edge are not uncommon in Plots, and it’s
fear that drives the narrator toward the object of his desire, in what reads like a straight transcription of
a recurring nightmare. He’s been promised s’mores, but can’t have any until he finds his sneakers; he
looks for them on the lake, but the aquatic infants frighten him under his bunk, where, lo and behold –
the sneakers, the object of desire, the path to the prize. “Someone had shit in both of them,” the
narrator observes. The object of desire is full of shit, as it were, but still grants access to the goal. Like
my trout-candy metaphor, Meiklejohn’s are garish and always speeding away from their starting points
while keeping them in the rearview mirror, careening and lurching through each short text until they
abruptly accordion-wreck at their final lines (which are imbued with the special gravity of all final lines).
“I put them on and ate s’mores.” One thinks of a more terrestrial take on Charles Simic’s The World
Doesn’t End, as Meiklejohn transmutes personal history into large-looming mythology by interleaving
mundane narratives with flights of phantasmagoria.
          When he isn’t letting banal ending lines swell and echo by dint of their very finality, Mieklejohn is
going to the opposite end of the spectrum and closing with Simic-like zingers. For instance, “Racism”
begins as a matter-of-fact account of youthful innocence. A speaker on racism comes to the narrator’s
elementary school class, whose “only point of reference to non-white persons was The Cosby Show.”
Given this limited perspective, the children have no context with which to understand the concept of
racism, and the narrator raises his hand to profess: “I don’t even think of them as black, they’re just
people to me.” But innocence also implies ignorance, which in turn implies complicity, and Meiklejohn
deftly turns “Racism” from a recollection to an indictment with its final line: “That day I began a lifetime
of thievery: the countless times I’d take things from people who couldn’t stop me.” This is just one
example of the disconcerting effects the author achieves by bringing the adult intelligence, with its ballast
of guilt and shame, to bear on the lucid, concatenated narratives of childhood. It’s also the first glimmer
of what will be Plots’s most emphatic inference – in a world where everything is dependent on
everything else, no action is truly harmless.
          If Plots relies heavily on polarization – the pat last line and the loaded one, the hallucinatory
clarity of childhood and the murky haze of maturity – this technique finds its fullest, boldest expression in
the various pieces simply titled “Plots.” Leafing through the book and observing the structure of the texts
(neatly quadrangular blocks of prose often dwarfed by large pages), “plots” seems to refer to gardens
or tracts of land: fenced zones of verdure where linguistic vegetation pushes through the fallow soil of
the page. The texts titled “Plots” are incantatory rather than narrative; the first instance is illuminating:Old
women applying lipstick, fat people jogging, schoolteachers playing basketball, prisoners trading
cigarettes for books, pale sunbathers wearing t-shirts, families laughing at televisions, brothers and
sisters hugging their parents, janitors whistling show tunes, nurses smiling at cancer patients, homeless
people watching construction, children. In each comma-separated unit, the author sets up two opposing
limits and leaves tacit the narratives unfolding between them. As it becomes apparent that absurdity is
not the goal, viz., that none of these juxtapositions are alien to, or even rare in, the world in which we
live, another meaning of “plot” asserts itself – conspiracy, some dark and malevolent design inherent in
desire (which is fear’s twin in this book, and in general). Desire is the transaction occurring in each of
these clauses, desire for the other, for the most opposite experience. But children, Meiklejohn seems to
tell us with his ending, having built no real experience for themselves yet, cannot crave otherness, cannot
feel the pull of the opposite, since the extremities each still exist within them. They haven’t been forced
to choose a disguise yet and still wear their honest faces. (“These disguises are not historical
contingencies that one might admire or regret,” Derrida pointedly tells us in Plots’s epigraph.) They are
not yet complicit.
          Or perhaps children themselves are the plot, some divine scheme to aggravate, by contrast, our
awareness of everything that we’ve lost and can’t regain, the potential we’ve squandered by choosing
one path at the expense of countless others. “Look around the room at everything you’re not,”
Meiklejohn writes in “The Title of This Story”:

                    [T]he easel, the canvas, the paint, the brush, tall enough to lock the chain
                    on your door that keeps out intruders so you can come back to sleep
                    and remind yourself that tomorrow you’ll start smiling more, wearing nicer
                    clothes, calling your friends back, leaning to say “Thank you” when you’d
                    rather run away like you saw the earth crumbling beneath their weight…

          The characters in other “Plots” range from the slapstick (“criminals in slow elevators”) to the
pathetic (“Women on the street with curlers in their hair, with someone else’s crying children, with dead
fish wrapped in tissue”) to the deranged (“Men on the street that walk through traffic, that stare at
seventh story windows, that run their hands over benches”). Sometimes they deal with literal
transactions, where complicity branches and ramifies (“homeless men who find honor washing car
windows for change, men in cars who praise the hard-working spirit of homeless men who wash car
windows for change”), sometimes with tragic disconnects (“Ex-mothers pinning child-size clothing to the
walls, ex-fathers cleaning beneath their fingernails for hours”), but they are almost always expressions of
longing for other experiences – not to live them, but to know them – either within the text or flowing
from the author to the page. Like many of us, Meiklejohn seems to resent having to choose one life at
the expense of so many others, and in “Is He Me Yet?” he limns the range of his possible experience by
once again capturing the poles:

                    I live two lives in two time zones. One is eighteen, courageous, working
                    hard to survive, living in Missoula, Montana. The other lives on the east
                    coast, lies in his tub for hours trying to simulate his birth, breathes through
                    a straw, jumps out screaming…

          Plots morphs in subtle ways often enough to keep the reader from fully settling into a comfort
zone; and repeatedly the texts surprise when you think you’ve got them all sussed out. It’s like getting
turned around in a house with many doors and opening one you expect to be a bedroom, but finding a
bathroom instead. After sticking with the first-person for a couple texts, Plots suddenly swivels to
directly address the reader with “Making Industries”: “The last time you stayed with your grandparents,
you looked through their scrapbooks like you did in your youth, half asleep in the attic with candles and
silence everywhere.” This theoretical “you” is distraught to find no pictures of yourself in the
scrapbooks, and you swear to make “a thousand scrapbooks” of your own grandson “so that every
time he’d visit nostalgia would invade him like it was a battalion of 35-year-olds making industries of
their pasts and he was a nightclub.” Here is memory posited as commodity, something precious yet
cheapened by preservation, the gossamer web in which both fear and desire are caught.
          But perhaps the most effective section of Plots is its middle third, a series of vignettes each
entitled “This Belongs to You”. The themes of familial trauma and its reverberations, which have
haunted the other texts in rattlings and whispers, leap to the fore in this series: Your mother punishes you
by making you dig your own grave in the backyard; you catch your daughter cutting herself; you
accidentally find your mother burying your sister by a lake; you fail to help your father commit suicide.
There’s a lot of slippage in the “you;” each incident is attached to an age and the chronology doesn’t
square, and the reader is moved to inhabit each disguise for just a moment before being whisked to the
next. The result is rather delirious, a staccato symphony of pain and buried traumas, and it’s here that
Plots attains greatest transparency and direct emotional force.
           Plots is a thin, focused beam that scans into the shifting fogs of memory, remorse and shame –
the big picture is never fully revealed; it’s limned by an accumulation of specific details and potent
archetypes, creating an emotionally treacherous, magically charged space filled with brutal blankness,
fuzzy memories attached to deep feelings, and disorienting absences. Regardless of whether it’s poetry
or fiction, it sings, it feels true, and it’s subtly frightening. Like a billiard player, Meiklejohn examines his
themes from every angle before making his shot – childhood, memory, desire, disguises, hidden yet
urgent imperatives, and most importantly, our complicity, our inextricable connectedness to (and
culpability for) the human pageant we participate in creating even as we long for it. Thus it’s both a
comfort and a condemnation when Meiklejohn cuts to the quick of this fraught complicity with the final
“Plot,” the next-to-last text in the chap, and the shortest of them all, which reads in its entirety: “You are
not alone.”